- The Last Gladiators dir. by Alex Gibney
Following in the footsteps of ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 series, Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary The Last Gladiators attempts to shed light on an underhistoricized aspect of American sports culture: the ice hockey enforcer or “goon.” Typically falling to less-skilled, physically imposing players, the enforcer’s job is to protect the key skill players on the team through physical intimidation and fighting. Gibney’s film glosses the historical arc of the enforcer, from the rise of the role in the early 1970s to its peak influence in the later 1970s and 1980s. The film is largely constructed in a conventional post–Ken Burns documentary style, mixing interviews with sportswriters, hockey players, and other figures with stock footage and panned-and-zoomed stock photographs. At ninety-four minutes, it runs about twice as long as the standard 30 for 30 film, but it would otherwise work well as part of that series (for which Gibney directed 2011’s Catching Hell).
As a detailed historical account of the enforcer, Gibney’s documentary is limited by its similarity to another contemporary model of TV documentary production: VH1’s Behind the Music series. Rather than delving deeply into the rise and recent decline of the enforcer, The Last Gladiators is largely focused on the story of one man: 1980s enforcer Chris “Knuckles” Nilan. A charismatic Bostonian-turned-Montreal Canadien, Nilan’s life and career are narrated following a familiar Behind the Music narrative arc: rise from obscurity, improbable success, decline into depression and drug addiction, and eventual recovery after hitting “rock bottom.” Other ex-enforcers have their say, but the film is Nilan’s story, and other players’ comments are used mostly to reinforce Nilan’s own insights into life as an enforcer.
It’s not entirely fair to demand that directors make a film different from the one they want to make, but it’s hard not to wish that the film had committed to the plural noun in its title, particularly since Gibney rose to prominence with films (such as 2005’s Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and 2007’s Taxi to the Dark Side) that adeptly wrestle with economic, social, and political issues without losing track of compelling individual narratives. Nilan’s story is no doubt fascinating, and interviews with his family and friends allow for a detailed look into his background and formative influences. However, the focus on Nilan both individualizes a shared role within the sport and obscures what key differences might exist among enforcers.
Gibney’s major themes emerge largely from the relationship between Nilan and his father, Henry. A former Green Beret, Henry Nilan is a stern disciplinarian who physically abused Chris and was often ashamed of his son’s life. Henry oozes an old-school masculinity, one that Chris seems to have copied as an enforcer. That militaristic masculinity infuses both Nilan’s accounts. In a conversation about his effort to be drafted into the NHL, Chris explains that his father told him, “The only way you’d be drafted was if there was another war.” Later, as Chris attempts to recover from his addictions and establish a new career in the hockey world, his father dismissively tells us that “he’s still involved with that [End Page 215] hockey thing.” Later, as Henry recounts seeing Chris recovering from drug addiction in the hospital, he says that he couldn’t believe this was his son “laying here like a goddamn incapacitated person that I was ashamed of.”
The impossible expectations of traditional masculinity underline the film’s other key theme: aspiration. Throughout the film, Chris’s efforts to impress his father, to “make good” as a hockey player, are clear, and he achieves that by giving his father the Stanley Cup ring he won in 1987. This aspiration to gain his father’s respect is mirrored by the aspiration to be a real, skilled, productive player on the ice instead of simply a fighter. Chris consistently stresses his desire to have been more than an enforcer, and he tearfully...